It may not be the European tournament either side feel they should be in the last four of – Marseille take on Red Bull Salzburg in the other tie – but Arsenal v Atletico Madrid is definitely the glamour fixture of the Europa League semi-finals.
Madrid will feel particularly aggrieved at not being in the latter stages of the Champions League, having featured in two of the last four finals, while Arsenal are here due to their failure to qualify for Europe’s top table for the first time in 21 years under Arsene Wenger last term.
Ahead of the first leg, we look at some intriguing battles on both sides of the ball.
ALEXANDRE LACAZETTE V ANTOINE GRIEZMANN
It’s been a patchy debut season in England for a man who has been one of the most coveted strikers in Europe for the last few years.
Fifteen goals from 35 games isn’t horrible, but it’s hardly been a highlight reel either for a deadly finisher who plundered 22, 31, 23 and 37 goals respectively in his last four seasons with Lyon.
But the 26-year-old Frenchman is quietly coming into a little bit of form in recent weeks, netting six times in his last six games in all competitions, including two goals from just three shots on goal in two Europa League games. He previously scored once in 14 games over a three-month span from December to February.
He’s firing at the right time for the Gunners, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang ineligible for the Europa League. Lacazette has thus far been playing the role of support act to the Gabon goal-getter, but the stage is set for him to become Arsenal’s leading man.
Lacazette’s compatriot Griezmann, meanwhile, is making a habit of picking up the scoring pace in the new year – his first 30 games this season yielded 11 goals; he has hit 18 in the subsequent 20.
The 27-year-old is continuously linked with a summer move to Barcelona and, if he does depart, he could do so with his best-ever season tally for Los Rojiblancos as a parting gift. Griezmann has netted 26 times in 42 games in all competitions for Atleti this season – already matching his total from a year ago, in which he played 53 games.
His best tally in the red and white shirt is 32 from 54 games in the 2015/16 campaign.
Built on the bedrock of one of Europe’s best defences and with a combative, creative midfield unit able to adapt to any situation – yet in Griezmann they possess a marksman of true precision that can pierce any defence.
AARON RAMSEY V SAUL NIGUEZ
Don’t be fooled by Arsenal’s woeful season as a collective, Welshman Ramsey is working wonders individually and is a huge reason why their campaign is not headed for total disaster.
The 27-year-old is enjoying a fine season and is on course for personal bests in both goals and assists, despite being stationed in a more withdrawn defensive midfield role for club, in opposition to the No10 offensive lynchpin role he occupies for Wales.
Ramsey has bagged 11 goals for the Gunners in 2017/18, from just 27 games, four of which have been scored in his last three games. He is only five away from his best season tally of 16 in 34 that he mustered in an incredible 2013/14.
He also has eight assists, one less than the nine he managed, again in that memorable campaign five years ago.
He is notably Arsenal’s top scorer in a competition they have scored a leading 29 times in. Ramsey has four goals in four games – including super strikes at the San Siro in the last 16 against Milan and a stunning back-heeled finish as part of a brace against CSKA Moscow.
On the other side of the ball will be Saul, who is Atletico’s joint-top scorer in the Europa League this season, alongside Griezmann. The 23-year-old has been an ever-present for Madrid this season, finding the back of the net in the last 16 clash with Copenhagen and the quarter-final 8-1 rout of Lokomotiv Moscow.
Saul is considered one of Europe’s most complete midfielders, someone equally adept sitting at the base of midfield and acting as either destroyer or creator; he can play wide and add width and invention despite not being blessed with tremendous pace and he can conduct play and score goals when unleashed further forward.
Has been linked with Thursday’s opponents in recent weeks, but the Real Madrid academy graduate is happily settled in the city and is tied to Wanda Metropolitano club until 2026, where he has a mammoth release clause of £130million.
SHKODRAN MUSTAFI V DIEGO GODIN
Diego Simeone fielded a three-man defence in a drab 0-0 draw against Real Betis last time out in La Liga and hinted he may do the same again in London, with his side suffering a mild crisis of confidence.
Uruguayan stalwart Diego Godin watched on as his side drew a blank in Monday’s 0-0 draw, albeit with a host of fellow regulars rested – but there is certainly more than some suggestion that Arsenal face Godin and Co at the right time, with a side that prides itself on a stern defence in a poor run of form, winning just one of their last five.
Away from the Wanda Metropolitano, Atleti have lost their past four matches on the road and most recently went down 3-0 to Real Sociedad in La Liga. In Europe, Atletico have won only four of their past 14 away leg UEFA semi-final matches.
This season in the Europa League, however, they have been pretty much classic Atletico Madrid, conceding just three goals in six matches and rocketing in 15 goals – although they did lose the second leg of their quarter-final, 1-0 against Sporting Lisbon. They have the second best defensive record in the competition after Red Star Belgrade.
The Gunners also run a much tighter ship in Europe, conceding an average of 0.83 goals per game in the Europa League, yet they have conceded just one goal less than 17th-place Swansea in the Premier League.
There’s often a sense of vulnerability in the defence, with German international Mustafi hardly a stable presence alongside the more stoic Laurent Koscielny.
Mustafi, at £35m, is the most expensive Arsenal defender in history, yet he continues to make basic and high-profile errors, two years after joining from Valencia.
His defending for Newcastle’s equaliser in the recent 2-1 defeat is a clear indicator that rather than alleviate their defensive fragilities, he is only adding to Arsenal’s chronic defensive at the back.
The glamour tie of the Europa League semi-finals pits the young stallion against the old bull as Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid go up against Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal for a place in the Europa League final.
It’s a chance for Wenger – who announced earlier this month that he will leave the club after 22 years at the end of the season – to end his tenure in north London on a high by winning a maiden European trophy.
Simeone, meanwhile, will want to lift a sixth title in his seven-year spell with Los Rojiblancos – the first of which was victory in this competition in his debut 2011/12 campaign.
Here are some of the key tactical talking points ahead of the encounter …
BOTH COACHES FACING DEFENSIVE FRAGILITIES
It’s no secret that Arsenal are a mess defensively, with Atletico favourites to progress to a second Europa League final in seven years – especially with the second leg being played in Spain.
But Arsenal should be buoyed by the form of their opponents coming into this encounter. Madrid’s sole victory in their last five games was the 3-0 win against relegation-threatened Levante earlier this month, but they have since been thrashed 3-0 by mid-table Real Sociedad.
A 0-0 draw in their last game against Real Betis all-but confirmed Barcelona as La Liga champions, while despite their march to the semi-finals, they did drop a tense second leg tie 1-0 to Sporting Lisbon to see Simeone’s side scrape through 2-1 on aggregate.
Of course, Arsenal have their own problems, with Wenger’s side conceding 46 Premier League goals this season – one less than 13th-placed Brighton.
The big issue for the outgoing Frenchman is that Arsenal can’t seem to function as a unit in his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation. With Shkodran Mustafi in woeful form and bringing Laurent Koscielny down to his level and Hector Bellerin regressing massively this term, they’ve been badly exposed on many occasions.
WILL ARSENAL GIVE WENGER A FOND FAREWELL?
What a tumultuous season it has been for Arsenal. On course for their worst league finish in the Premier League era, woefully off the pace of the top sides, and finally set to say goodbye to the manager who has been integral to their success over the last two decades.
The Gunners have though saved their best for Europe, blowing away CSKA Moscow in the first leg of the quarter-final and impressive home and away wins over AC Milan showing the old Arsenal are in there somewhere.
The shock loss to Ostersund and the second-leg wobble versus CSKA, however, prove the deep malaise Wenger has allowed to creep in during the latter years of his tenure meaning there are issues for his replacement to address.
With the Gunners misfiring in the league once again and certainties to miss out on the top-four for a second successive year, the team at least have the chance to send Wenger off into the sunset in a blaze of glory with a maiden European trophy.
He’s a man who has been such a pioneer for the club and European football as a whole during his career, producing teams and players that have thrilled audiences the world over. Does the veteran showman have one more magic trick left to conjure?
CAN BOTH TEAMS KEEP UP THEIR PROLIFIC EUROPEAN SCORING RECORD?
Atletico are renowned for their usually stout defence, but it is in attack that they have flourished this season in Europe. They have scored 15 goals in their six knockout games since dropping down from the Champions League, with 13 of those coming in sound 5-1 and 8-1 aggregate thrashings of Copenhagen and Lokamotiv Moscow respectively in the last 16 and quarter-finals.
The Gunners, meanwhile, are certainly living up to their nickname, as they’ve been on fire in the Europa League, launching themselves to the top of the charts with a tournament-leading 29 goals – three more than next highest scorers Lazio.
Defensively they’re a shambles and are always likely to concede, of course, but Europe has been something of a safe haven for the Londoners, with 16 different scorers finding the net. The likes of Danny Welbeck and Alexandre Lacazette have used it as a platform to stand out in otherwise disappointing seasons domestically.
With Arsenal’s frailties at the back combined with Atletico coming into the contest in less than stellar form defensively, it all points to a promising two-legged tie that could provide plenty of goals.
WHO DOES WENGER PICK ALONGSIDE RAMSEY?
In the midst of a demoralising season for his club, Aaron Ramsey is enjoying a wonderful campaign personally. The Welshman has scored eight goals and provided two assists in his last nine appearances in all competitions.
The conundrum for Wenger is who does he call upon to throw into the trenches alongside ‘Rambo’ in what will be a war against Atletico?
In one sense, the combative Granit Xhaka is ideally suited to this sort of attritional fixture, yet can he be truly trusted in the pressure cooker environment of a tight and tense semi-final?
The Swiss is a powderkeg player who could either explode at any minute or let his side down with a lapse of concentration, yet the likelihood, however, is that he’ll have to play, with Wenger light on footsoldiers.
Jack Wilshere was ruled out against West Ham with injury, Mesut Ozil was unavailable due to illness, while Mohamed Elneny (who has completed more passes in the Europa League this season, 710, than anyone else) was stretchered off in the first half.
Promising youngster Ainsley Maitland-Niles came on to replace Elneny against the Hammers, but with few other options in central midfield, Wenger will be eager for good news on Wilshere and Ozil before Thursday’s game as he looks to combat an awesome Atleti engine room.
The trio, as well as full-back Sead Kolasinac, missed Sunday’s 4-1 Premier League win over West Ham with minor complaints, but all were part of the squad working at London Colney.
Ozil was ill, while Cech had a minor hip injury as Wilshere and Kolasinac were sidelined with ankle problems.
Mohamed Elneny was carried off on a stretcher on the stroke of half-time with ankle ligament damage, although Arsenal are hopeful he will play again this season.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan is also absent, but could feature in the second leg in Madrid next week, having trained away from the group on Wednesday.
The news will be a boost to outgoing Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger as he looks to end his near-22 year tenure with a European trophy, especially as Atletico themselves were given good news as former Chelsea forward Diego Costa was passed fit to travel to London following a hamstring injury.